Fire Department considering shift of west-side company to east side

East Baltimore under strain after units closed last year

April 12, 2013|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

Fire Chief James S. Clack is considering moving a West Baltimore fire company across town this summer to alleviate the strain on East Baltimore units after two fire companies closed there last year.

Clack said the plan, which has not been finalized and must be reviewed by the City Council, is an attempt to respond to a spike in calls to east-side companies — some have seen jumps of more than 50 percent — since East Baltimore's Truck 15 and Southeast Baltimore's Squad 11 were closed last summer.

The idea was made possible by the decision of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to keep West Baltimore's Truck 10 open. The unit had been on the chopping block, but was saved by a reallocation of $1.4 million in taxes, fees and cost savings related to the Grand Prix of Baltimore.

"When the mayor was able to find the money to keep Truck 10, that changed the equation," Clack said. He said the current citywide arrangement of companies is based on choices made when Truck 10 was considered lost.

With Truck 10 still in service, he said, the deployment of companies needs to be tweaked.

Firefighters union president Rick Hoffman and fire officers union president Mike Campbell both said the new plan bears out their warnings last year that the closures would endanger city residents and that the Fire Department has too few resources to cover the entire city.

"We talked until we were blue in the face about how it will affect, and what ill effects it will have on, the communities," Hoffman said. "A mistake was made."

The solution, he said, should not be another reshuffling but a reinstatement of the lost companies.

Campbell said he is "totally against the move," in part because it will hurt West Baltimore.

"It's going to be a detriment wherever you're taking it from," he said. "They're trying to take from Peter to pay Paul."

Both Hoffman and Campbell have been talking to community groups, urging them to fight the proposal.

Clack said police reallocate resources all the time, and the Fire Department is trying to operate with similar flexibility. He said he has not determined exactly which company to shift yet — there are two options — but he knows where the hole is that needs filling.

According to department data, a ring of East Baltimore companies has been hit particularly hard by the removal of Truck 15 and Squad 11.

Comparing the total number of calls between July and February to the same period a year prior, the number of calls to which Truck 5 has responded from its East Baltimore station in the 800 block of E. 25th St. has increased by nearly 65 percent. The company is on track to respond to more than 5,000 calls this fiscal year.

In another example of the strain, Engine 6 and Truck 1 in Oldtown have seen increases in calls of 41 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

With such heavy demand, Clack said, the reliability of the affected companies has decreased because they are stretched thin and unable to respond as quickly. While he'd like to have the $2.1 million needed to open a new company, he said, the money isn't there. Rawlings-Blake's 10-year fiscal plan calls for more belt-tightening, including possible changes to firefighters' hours.

Two potential moves are being considered.

One would shift Engine 8 from the Harlem Park station in the 1500 block of W. Lafayette St., where Truck 10 is also stationed, to back up Truck 5 at the East 25th Street station.

The other would move Engine 36 from its Midtown-Edmondson station in the 2200 block of Edmondson Ave. to back up Truck 5, and Truck 10 to take Engine 36's place at Midtown-Edmondson.

No plan would leave an existing station empty, Clack said.

"People care if there's a fire station in their neighborhood that's staffed, and that's not changing," he said.

But change will come for some firefighters. While moving companies won't have an impact on rank or salary or shifts, Clack said, it will affect where firefighters report to work.

"It's moving their lockers," he said.

Firefighters and other members of the department aren't thrilled about that, the union leaders said.

"The community adopts the firehouse, and the firehouse adopts the community," Campbell said.

Clack said his top priority is using resources in a way that best serves Baltimore's residents.

The decision on which company to shift will be made by next month, he said, when the Fire Department will begin discussing its budget request with city officials.

The change will have to be presented to the City Council under a law passed last year that requires the department to brief council members on permanent changes.

There have been eight fire-related deaths in the city this year. In the most recent, a 57-year-old woman died Monday morning in Northwest Baltimore after she accidentally ignited her clothing while smoking, officials said.

There were 12 fire-related deaths in the city last year, a historic low.

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